Theater Review: ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus music shows show promise when it premieres

Akron Watson as Glenn Holland and Angel Lin as Gertrude Liang in “Mr. Holland’s Opus. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

Ogunquit Playhouse turns 90e anniversary with the world premiere of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” written and directed by Tony Award-winning stage and film actor DB Wong. Wong has teamed up with longtime friend and composer Wayne Barker to create a new musical that offers an imaginative and thrilling retelling of the 1995 film starring Richard Dreyfuss.

The musical wraps 39 years – spanning from 1969 to 2008 – over a span of nearly three hours, with intermission. Glenn Holland, played by Akron Watson, reluctantly puts his lifelong aspirations as a composer on hold to take a job as a high school music teacher in Sacramento, California. What begins as a necessary evil to temporarily pay the bills becomes a life-changing career affecting not only Holland, but the lives of countless children.

It’s a complex story, filled with a roller coaster of ups and downs as Holland struggles to navigate a bombshell life that includes a deaf son, Cole, played by deaf performance artist Joshua Castille. Castille delivers a heartfelt performance that captures both her character’s zest for life and her frustration at not being able to connect with her sound-obsessed father. The Act 2 opener “Cole World” offers a fascinating alternative to a traditional song, featuring Castille singing via sign language. Several actors sign throughout the second act, bringing a dimension to the story.

In the musical, Holland draws from a wide range of musical styles to engage her students rather than relying on classical music from the prescribed curriculum. Wong and Barker have created a musical score that is a clever ode to Holland’s rule-breaking teaching style, incorporating an eclectic score of songs inspired by a variety of styles and time periods. Various choreographies by Darren Lee accompany the score, incorporating classic steps reminiscent of the Charleston with more modern dance moves.

Watson handles whatever musical style is thrown at her with ease, delivering a fiery, energetic performance that enlivens the script and touches the heart. Songs such as “The Babies Crying” and the climatic “Mr. Holland’s Opus” showcase his passionate voice beautifully.

Joshua Castille as Cole with the cast of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” at Ogunquit Playhouse. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

There are strong voice performances and character portrayals throughout the production. Anastasia Barzee is sassy as Holland’s wife, Iris, delivering beautiful singing soprano vocals. Her performance of “My Day” is particularly compelling as her character emotionally unravels under the pressure of her everyday life.

There are plenty of lighthearted moments intertwined in the dramatic narrative, with Veanne Cox and Timothy Gulan shining as Principal Helen Chae-Jacobs and Vice Principal Eugene Wolters. The rule-enforcement characters blossom comically as the musical progresses, with Cox tickling the funny bone in the second act, appearing to Wolter as a figment of his imagination. Cox and Gulan are playing well.

Chris Orbach also stands out as Coach Bill Meister, as do many students and secondary characters. Angel Lin is memorable as initially shy student Gertrude Liang, and Kai An Chee as Rowena Moraga is a dynamic force to be reckoned with, especially on the highly entertaining parody, “Kennedy High Presents Cleo-Popera.”

Songs like “Skin in the Game” perfectly showcase the talents of several lead actors, as well as supporting cast members like the soulful-voiced Napoleon M. Douglas as Louie. “Gone the Son” is another standout song, featuring soulful three-part vocals from Troy Valjean Rucker, Louis Jannuzzi III, and Maggie McNeil as supporting characters Louis Rus Sr., Timothy Stadler, and Stadler’s Mom.

Several actors provide musical instrumentation throughout the musical. They’re quite a sight to behold incorporated into the orchestra on stage in the powerful finale, “Mr. Holland’s opus.

As an all-new musical, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” has already undergone countless revisions on its journey to the Ogunquit Playhouse stage and will continue to evolve as it transitions to the next level. The musical is a work in its own right, with great potential for growth in its future. It’s exciting to witness the birth of a new musical, and like its main character, it may not be not completely perfect, but definitely has a way of capturing hearts in the end.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at: [email protected].

Twitter: @ahboyle

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William N. Fernandez